Back to school with Marcus and Max

HOOVER, Ala. -- They are two very large men who turned down very large paychecks.
Auburn tackle Marcus McNeill and Georgia guard Max Jean-Gilles were two of the biggest men in the building on the second day of SEC Media Days on Thursday. And while both could have been reporting to NFL training camps this week, neither is having second thoughts about his decision.
McNeill had every reason to leave the Plains on a high note. The Tigers are coming off of an undefeated season which will be tough to top. Their three biggest weapons, quarterback Jason Campbell and running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams, all were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. And McNeill would likely have joined them.
"Me and my family sat down for a long time to weigh my options and make a decision," McNeill said. "There was a lot of money there, and a good chance I could get a big contract. But at the same time, you only have four years of college, and I am really enjoying my stay at Auburn. I didn't really want to leave my Auburn family yet."
McNeill tried not to think about where he might go in the draft, but the projections were hard to ignore.
"I tried not to look into it, because I didn't want it to sway my decision too much," he said. "But we did see mock drafts where I was rated as high as the sixth pick. That's crazy for a guy who is just an offensive tackle and is not in the limelight very much. That was big for me, but at the same time I didn't want that to be my focus when I was deciding whether or not to stay."
Jean-Gilles also saw high-profile senior teammates heading to the NFL all around him, including quarterback David Greene and receivers Fred Gibson and Reggie Brown. But while Jean-Gilles -- like McNeill -- expressed his love for the college experience, his feedback from the NFL played a larger role in his decision to stay in school.
"It was a little bit of both," Jean-Gilles said. "When the NFL told me it would probably be the third or fourth round, I thought I was better than that. So I'm better off going back to college, finishing my senior year."
While Bulldogs coach Mark Richt is certainly glad to have Jean-Gilles back, he made sure he had all the information necessary to make an educated decision.
"I think it was very important for him to understand how the NFL viewed him," Richt said. "That's very difficult to find out, but there are certain scouts and systems in place to try to educate the player. They don't etch it in stone, but Max felt like there was a good chance that he would be drafted.
"Max believes he is one of the best linemen in the country, as do I, and where he might have gone last year was not quite as exciting to him as he would have liked it to be. But he loves Georgia, too, and the opportunity to be a senior leader was a factor also."
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville reaped the benefits when Campbell, Brown and Williams returned to be senior leaders last season, and now McNeill is back for more also.
"We don't say anything special to them," Tuberville said. "We give them all the information and let them make the decision on their own. I do not want Marcus coming back for the wrong reasons, coming back because I am telling him he is going to make All-American."
McNeill admits that while he felt no pressure to stay, the experience of his former teammates did come into play.
"I saw how successful they were in their senior years, and that kind of motivated me to stay," McNeil said. "But at the same time, I knew I had to make my own decision on what would be best for my life. I just felt like coming back to Auburn was the best decision I could have made."
Of course, two current teammates almost made McNeill re-think his decision during Spring practice. Facing defensive ends Stanley McClover and Quentin Groves every day is no picnic.
"At one point he hadn't blocked either one of them yet," Tuberville said. "He came to me and said, 'Coach, I don't know why I came back, going against these guys everyday.' "
Whatever the reason, Tuberville is glad to have him.
"Marcus is the type of guy that loves football and knows he is a great football player," Tuberville said. "I think the sky is the limit for him. He passed up a lot of money, but him coming back is going to be fun to watch."
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